And I Darken bought us some of the best characters YA has seen in a long time: Lada Dracul, the fearsome terror of a little girl, and her gentle brother Radu. Defying stereotypes of gender, race and religion, as well as the predictable tropes of the genre itself, And I Darken was a FanLit fave of last year. Lada and Radu make their return in the follow-up, Now I Rise (2017), but can the sequel live up to its dazzling predecessor?
Lada ended And I Darken forging out towards Wallachia with her loyal Janissaries, having rejected the new sultan Mehmed’s offer to stay with him, whilst Radu chose to remain. The messy love triangle — Radu’s unrequited love for Mehmed, and Lada and Mehmed’s impossible affair — finally wrought the trio apart, destroying the once inseparable bonds of three children that grew up together.
Radu chose to stay with Mehmed, yet far from having the sultan to himself, he has been axed from his circle of advisors and must instead linger on the outskirts of the royal court. Mehmed does not want people growing suspicious of his closeness with Radu, he argues, and this way, they can build an army against Constantinople in secret, without Mehmed’s enemies catching wind of their plans. Radu is more important to him than ever, Mehmed promises. But for Radu, it’s difficult to see how being held at arm’s length shows his importance. Especially when Mehmed cannot even look him in the eyes.
Meanwhile Lada is forging an increasingly bloody trail towards Wallachia. Where her brother would compromise, persuade, and sweet-talk, Lada knows only her sword. She is hilariously prickly as ever, but something has been lost in this new ruthlessness. One of the most endearing things about her in And I Darken was her surprising ability to do good even in the midst of her ferocity, but this nuance is lost in Now I Rise. Whilst it is, of course, an inevitable part of her character growth, a character with so little sympathy left for them makes for much less compulsive reading.
Radu is his same uncertain self, but he too has lost some of the pivotal characteristics that made him so endearing in And I Darken. It is not his unwavering love for Mehmed which makes him frustrating, but his constant navel-gazing. Huge, introspective chunks of the story explore his regrets and his indecision, and whilst this again shapes his character, it also takes some wind out of the plot’s sails and there are certainly parts of the story that could’ve ramped up the pace.
Quips aside, the book’s supporting cast were a delight. The wily and resourceful Nazira is constantly prodding Radu into action when he gets too mopey; Cyprian, the nephew of Constantine, provides a new love-interest for Radu, and here Kiersten White has got the balance just right. You’ll find none of the usual YA tropes here: no insta-love or eye-rollingly obvious hints at a relationship. Instead Radu and Cyprian must adhere to the religious and social pressures that dictate same-sex love is wrong. It’s a subplot both moving and compelling.
And I Darken was always going to be a tough act to follow. With Lada, Radu and Mehmed spread to the winds, we lose the dynamics of the trio together which made the series opener such a pleasure to read. Nonetheless, our favourite characters still cause all the mayhem and havoc they’ve always done in Now I Rise, and whilst it may feel like a bit of a stepping-stone in the trilogy, it still far outshines any other contenders in the genre.